I just finished rereading Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap. I’m giving a presentation in Memphis next month at The Martin Institute titled “The New Literacy,” and I’m reviewing some of the works that have informed my thinking on this subject. Wagner’s book especially highlights the need to help budding writers create focus, energy, and passion in their communication through the development of an authentic voice. We English teachers generally come to our discipline through a love of literature and writing about literature. As a result (and because no one has taught us to do otherwise), we teach writing almost solely through the reading and critiquing of the canon. It’s as though the consummate form of written expression is reached when one has mastered the five-paragraph expository essay on Hamlet’s indecisiveness or Gatsby’s myopia.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s much that is good about the five-paragraph essay. Writers learn to grab their readers, make an argument, defend that argument through evidence, and summarize their perspective. Personally, I appreciate it when someone, whether published in print or talking on television, can do this with clarity and concision.
The problem is that we English teachers have placed too much emphasis on form over function. The five-paragraph essay does offer a clear-cut, easy-to-teach formula for clear, succinct writing, but who uses that form of writing in the real world? I’ve asked that question many times, and even in presentation halls filled with teachers, I’ve never had anyone respond that they regularly – or even irregularly – write five-paragraph essays. It’s just not done outside of the halls of a secondary school classroom.
Instead, I’ve been asking writing practitioners, which means pretty much everyone I encounter, what form of written expression they use to communicate. The answers (in no order of prevalence or frequency of use) are emails, texts, letters, blog posts, social media posts, tweets, memos, reports, brainstorming sessions, medical charts, songs, short stories, resumes, diaries. I didn’t interview students or academicians. Just regular folk. And no one answered, “five-paragraph essays.”
So the question seems to be, if we’re trying to help prepare students for the real world, why are we focusing so much on one form of writing that isn’t even used in the real world? If we believe that form should follow function, and we know that students need to function as creative, clear, cogent writers, why don’t we develop them as writers using the authentic writing forms of the modern world?
For instance, what if I asked my students to reduce this blog post to a tweet? That’d teach concision and clarity. What if I asked them to write a letter to their English teacher advocating this form of instruction? That’d teach audience, voice, and persuasion. What if I asked them to compose a resume of their learning experience in high school with a bullet point expressing their writing capabilities? That’d teach reflection, analysis, and summarization.
In his book, Wagner repeatedly emphasizes that he hears the same mantra from employers all over the nation: employees need to be better communicators. The questions we teachers need to be asking are how are people communicating today, what makes those forms of communication effective, how might we develop those forms of communication in our classrooms. The new literacy demands it.